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Drivers stretching the terms of their auto leases

Remember the vanilla, run-of-the-mill three-year auto lease?

Although that's still the most popular option for drivers leasing their car or truck, a new report shows that a growing percentage of Americans are taking out longer-term leases for new vehicles.

Experian Automotive, which regularly tracks the financing of new and used vehicles, found an 18 percent surge in longer-term leases during the second quarter of 2015. Overall, just fewer than a quarter of all auto leases written from April through June were for terms longer than three years.

The shift comes as buyers are stretching out their commitments, in an effort to lower their monthly payments. As a result, the average monthly payment for a vehicle leased in the second quarter was $394, down from $407 during the same period in 2014, according to Experian.

"People [are] looking to get their monthly payments lower, and those few extra months on a lease can help do that," said Melinda Zabritski, senior director of automotive finance for Experian.

A worker cleans Ford SUV's at Star Ford dealership in Glendale, California.
Getty Images
A worker cleans Ford SUV's at Star Ford dealership in Glendale, California.

The growth in longer-term leases mirrors a trend banks, credit unions and auto finance firms have seen for several years. Consumers want longer terms on their loans so they can afford more expensive vehicles. That's one reason why the average auto loan now calls for monthly payments over a span of five years and seven months.

Experian says auto loans extending from six to seven years now make up almost a third of all new vehicle financing, with those loans increasing almost 20 percent in the second quarter.

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As a result, the average monthly payment for a new vehicle edged slightly higher to $483, from $467 one year ago.

Whether it's buying or leasing a new or used vehicle, one trend is clear: More Americans are borrowing to pay for their vehicles. According to Experian, 85.8 percent of all new vehicles sold in the second quarter were financed, while 55.5 percent of used vehicle purchases were financed. Both represent record highs for the second quarter.

The report comes as the auto industry continues to run at a near record pace in the U.S., with August projected to hit an annual sales rate of 17.4 million, according to TrueCar.

America is on pace to have its second-best year ever for auto sales, based on the latest information from industry consulting firm Autodata.

Questions? Comments? BehindTheWheel@cnbc.com.